Vicky Loras

Working with difficult students – Vicky Loras

Vicky LorasHow to Give Difficult Students Another Chance… and Another, If They Need It
We have planned the best lesson ever, imagined great things developing in class and then a student turns everything upside down by upsetting the balance. It has happened to all of us.

In my opinion, difficult students fall into two categories: students with discipline issues and students who are hesitant and shy.

Students with discipline issues often refuse to take part in activities and find ways to disrupt the class. This can be equally disruptive for the educator and the other students.

I remember once when teaching a small group of students, one person constantly found ways of disrupting lessons, practically bullied classmates and was always interrupting me. I had to think of ways to approach her without pushing her away. It was very difficult at times. We are human and can get frustrated.

I strongly believe that students causing discipline problems should not be singled out or humiliated in any way in front of the class. It has to be dealt with immediately and privately. Before doing so, we need to clear our heads of anger or frustration before making decisions or saying things we might regret. That will only bring the opposite results and the problem may be left hanging.

I had a teacher who didn’t immediately deal with a classmate who was constantly attacking other students and the teacher himself. The tension lingered in class for days and the environment felt toxic and unproductive. It affected the learning process and the relationships students had with the teacher and each other.

By dealing with a discipline issue immediately we help other students trust us and feel they are all valued – that they are in a safe and calm environment.

For those of us who’ve been a language learner, we know how difficult it can be for students to express their thoughts, particularly in front of the whole class.

I still remember a frightened Vicky in Italian class! I would not utter a single word in class, or if I did, I spoke very quietly. Unfortunately, my teacher did not pay attention to me that much and chose to ignore me rather than help me overcome this issue. From being a teacher, I now understand how hard it can become for the student and the class to function properly; however, we need to help these students feel as comfortable as possible and stress the fact that even if they make mistakes, they are there to learn from us as well as from and with their classmates

Again, as with the student with discipline issues, the hesitant / shy student needs to be spoken to privately and asked where they think they have problems and what they could do to slowly overcome their shyness.  With students who have strong reactions, we need to ensure them that we are there to help and not pressure them or make them feel uncomfortable in any way.

We can have them work alone for the first few lessons, perhaps even write what they would like to say and with their consent read that out to the whole class, remembering to praise them in order for motivation to slowly become more present. Then, we can pair  them with a student they feel comfortable with to work on a collaborative task. Most of the time it works and they blossom into great and brave learners!

We’ll always have difficult students no matter what we do. It’s nobody’s fault. However, we need to make sure we deal with the problems they cause promptly and effectively.  We  also always need to remember that negative moments can be  learning experiences for us and for  students. When we all work together, it can only turn positive!

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Vicky Loras

My name is Vicky Loras and I am an English Teacher, born in Toronto, Canada. For ten years, my sisters (Eugenia and Christine) and I owned an English School in Greece, The Loras English Academy, but I have now moved with my eldest sister to Switzerland, where I continue to work as an English teacher. I believe in teaching as an ongoing learning process, both for the benefit of the students and the teacher. For that reason I love attending workshops and conferences! Outside class you can usually find me at bookshops or libraries, I absolutely love books!

33 thoughts on “Working with difficult students – Vicky Loras”

  1. Well, I ‘ll agre with you in the sense that I acted in exactly the same way as you did with shy students. I had (and still is- but, not to such extent ,this year, hopefully for me) a shy student (of Arab origin) who turend out not to co-operate in group work, not to participate in the lesson, unless being asked separately to answer to my questions.
    What I did is the same as your course of action, that is, make her write out what she wanted to say, draw a sketch and then present it to her partner or to the whole of class, but, shortly after I’d advised her how to say it in English- she didn’t and still does not want to voice her critical thoughts and opinions for the simple reason that she fears being ridiculed in front of the whole class.
    What i still do is to suggest arguments she may use ,she translates them into English and off she goes…..After talking this matter through with her parents , they blurted out that she’s a girl and must be treated seriously in class and in the entire school community….What more can I say? Is it part and parcel of their culture? Do we also have to consider seriously and /or even amending our own didactics ,so that students of other cultures may conform? And what about parents?

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Lora.

    1. Hi Paraskevi,

      Thank you so much for your comment – and for sharing your own personal experience. I understand that it can be very difficult in the situation you describe. I believe however that we should make a few allowances for cultural aspects too, as long as they do not interfere negatively with the whole classroom as an environment. Hang in there and let me know how it goes : )

      Kindest regards,

    2. Thank Vicky for post it, I just saw it now, but it is a very problematic issue that all of us face everyday classes. Actually, I am going through it right and I never have faced it, it is really tough, and tried many things on him, however he is still reluctant. So I won’t give up him easily, he is making me reflect about what’s wrong with my approach and how I can improve! Challenge!!! Thank once again Vicky!!! I

  2. Yes, they’re never easy, be they badly-behaved or be they insecurely shy. I was the latter, too, Vicky, and, like you, I was more often than not, ignored, and, like you, too, I always thank her in my heart because she taught me one thing at least.

    I think it’s important for teachers to try to understand their students and to gain their confidence. Not easy, but teaching isn’t an easy job.

    Great post, Vicky!

    1. Hi Chiew!

      Thanks so much for your comment – we were in the same boat then ; )

      It isn’t easy at all, I will agree with you on that. Once we get there though, so rewarding : )

      Thank you,

  3. I agree with you on every count! Discpline issues must be dealt with quickly otherwise the atmosphere in the class for everyone is affected!
    And certainly we must make extra special effort with the shy ones!

    1. Hi Naomi!

      Thank you so much for your comment! I know for sure that you are one of those amazing educators, who makes it a point to include everyone : ) I really hope to meet you in person some day!

      Thanks so much,

  4. Hi Vicky!

    I couldn’t agree more that the “difficult” students should not be exposed publicly, but rather in private. And more importantly they HAVE to be dealt with. Pretending there is no problem and that’s just the student’s personality will not help.

    I loved the tips :-) But I especially loved what you said about negative moments being learning experiences, for us and the students. We should always keep that in mind – in more areas of our lives than just teaching, if I may say.

    Thanks for a great post, Vicky!

    1. Hi Ceci!

      Thank you so much! You definitely do everything possible to help every child – something we can see clearly from several of your blog posts. The kids are very lucky to have you!


  5. I agree that certain discipline issues are to be dealt with in a private way. I also think that humiliating students personalities and intelligence is a big no. However, for the constant over and over misbehavior of mindless students their ACTIONS should be condemned publicly.

    I work in the roughest, toughest school I can imagine in this culture. Being sweet and nice means that you get walked on, giving freedom of choice to students means they choose to do nothing.

    Respect is born out of example, and needs to be mutual. However, if I do everything to gain their respect and they are just blatantly rude in return, just for the sake of being rude, then I refuse to be walked-on.

    Constantly fighting with students is not healthy, but if you work in an environment where students only respect the rules of the street, then playing by their rules and then some will gain far more respect then quietly telling them off in the corner.

    Wrath I have experienced plays an important part, both in parenthood and in the classroom. Mindless anger and violence is a waste of energy, but well places wrath, has and does change many a bad boy’s ways.

    Better to face the classroom wrath of an English teacher and change your ways than face the wrath of the law and end up in prison.

    By wrath I am specifically talking about fake, controlled, forceful vocal and visual fear inducing anger. It takes practice, but essentially by taking a calm inner spirit, then outwardly providing an angry appearance has many times served me to change the ways of whole classes.

    1. Dear Jason,

      Thanks so much for your comment and sharing your experiences, which I must say I have never experienced in my career so far. I can imagine it can be very difficult to have that situation in the classroom almost on a daily basis, and it is also because of external factors (family life for instance), which cannot be helped, or even wrecks everything you might have painstakingly been building in class.

      I am positive that deep down these kids know what you are doing for them and it their (unfortunate) way of reacting so. I also hope that some day, after they have finished school, that they will remember you and your efforts.

      Sending you my best thoughts and wishes – and many thanks again.

      Best regards,

  6. Discipline (or lack thereof) must be a major source of difficulties for the new teacher, especially one who’s a touchy-feely non-violence type, like me! And when you’ve had it drummed into you that your lessons must be student-centered, that makes for even more uncertainty about whether or when to lay down the law.

    But it’s necessary and if you hold back, it will come out in a less-than-optimal way sooner or later. In my case, I came close to tears once and had to step out of the room (and it STILL didn’t make a difference with that particular group!) and several times I’ve burst out with scolding which was neither appropriate nor effective. And this is with adults!

    Not that I’m good at it yet, but I think it’s a matter of assertiveness vs. aggressiveness. Aggressiveness is “My way or the highway. Period.” It doesn’t respect the needs of all parties. Assertiveness is “I insist that we respect certain bounds that protect ALL of us, but I’m open to different approaches within those bounds”. I’ve learned to explicitly work with the class to set the limits so we all agree when it’s appropriate to speak out (and students can call me or each other out too). I’m still learning to speak out immediately and with enough force to show I’m not kidding (as Jason describes above).

    I got the notion about assertive vs. aggressive from The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy Paterson. A highly worthwhile read. You can skim parts of it at Amazon.

    Thanks for the post, Vicky!

    1. Wow Kathy!

      Thanks so much – ewhat can I say? You have said it all and thanks so much for sharing your experiences – and the book you recommend. Many many thanks!

      Best regards,

  7. One way to help difficult students is to cooperate with parents and to give them some leading roles in their classes. It may be difficult at first but eventually, they will pick up.

    1. Hi Nabil!

      Thank you for adding that – speaking with parents, and especially giving the students responsibilities! They feel very responsible and respected that way.

      Thank you,

  8. Dear Vicky,
    Dealing with difficult students is one of the challenges that face teachers all over the world. It is very much personal, that is, every teacher has his/her own way of overcoming this difficulty. The following hints could be useful:
    Understanding students’ culture and social background
    Patience, self-discipline and social intelligence. Befriend them. Feel intimate and supportive

    Ahmed Awad and Hassan Tayemm

    1. Dear Dr. Awad,

      Thank you very much for your insightful comments! Understanding where they come from is essential. I agree that each teacher is different and with different experiences and qualities, they can help students!

      Thank you,

  9. Difficult students are those who do not respect themselves, neither do they care about the learning process.
    Even professional teachers sometimes fail to handle or deal with difficult students.
    I believe that such students should be controlled either by the use of force or by peaceful means. If difficult students are not handled carefully, they would make teaching difficult, and they would turn the life of the instructor into hell.
    Jamal Nafi’a

    1. Dear Jamal,

      I like the idea of bringing the students close to the teacher, in a physical space. It reduces the distance (mental and psychological) between teacher and students and builds up trust.

      Many thanks!

  10. Hi Vicky,
    I would agree that we should not deal with difficult students publicly, and we should deal with them privately. Moreover, I would suggest bringing them next to you in class trying to motivate them and to give them the sense that they are important.

  11. I think the difficult students are very dangerous cases for both the teacher and the other good students, too. So I do agree that the teacher should speak privately with the difficult students in order to give them much importance that they are essential in the classroom, and they have the right to learn as well as the others.

    1. Hi Ghouj,

      You couldn’t have said it better and many thanks for that – students need to feel wanted and respected in the classroom. If they feel rejected, that works against everybody.

      Have a great week,

  12. The issue is that if we continue treating badly behaved students gently, they wouldn’t change and ultimately they would spoil the whole class. Once they interfere, I guess , they should be warned several times not to repeat their bad behavior. If they comply, this is fine. If they don’t, the teacher should act. He may need to ask them to leave the class or to take an action like sending them to school principal to deal with their case. The bottom line is that the students’ interests should never be compromised.

    1. Hi Ekrema,

      I believe that students should be sent for a short time though (my addition here) out of class, to take a breather as I call it and come back when they are ready. But that, only in extreme cases. That goes for the principal’s office too – only when tings get out of class control and there are really big problems. It is best though, to prevent these these extreme situations from happening, before they reach there.

      Many thanks,

  13. I couldn’t agree more! Dealing with an undisciplined student aggressively will only make things worse. Right after the end of the lesson, the teacher has to talk privately with the student. And if that doesn’t work, a talk with the parents is important. As far as shy students are concerned, what can be done additionally is to promote their talents. I had a really shy student last year who was very good at drawing. When I asked her to draw something for a short film we were shooting with her classmates and complimented on her work, her self-esteem was boosted.

  14. Hi Vicky,

    I love your professionalism. I am learning so much from your blog. My question is how should teachers address students who “say” that they intend to disrupt the class. What do you suggest? Please provide steps if possible. Thanks.

  15. Hi Vicky,
    Thanks for the insightful post. I strongly believe that one of the most persistent challenges facing teachers is how to be able to act promptly and effectively when dealing with disruptive behaviour. Certainly, this has be immediate and in private. As you mentioned, we are humans, after all, and we can get very frustrated, especially if one works under some pressure. I believe that it should be made clear for students that reciprocal respect is what matters most. Also, students should understand that the teacher is not an enemy, rather a friend who is always there for them and ready to provide help whenever called for. I personally try to deal with my students in this way; I am always patient and tolerant and I encourage them to come to me at the end of class if they need anything. Most of the time, everything is settled thanks to discussion.

  16. Thank you for a very interesting post, Vicky! I completely agree with you about both types of students. Pushing them away will never help in this situation. I used to have such kind of situation with a kid who was director’s son and liked to distract all the class. He started speaking L1, and making fun of me. After talking to his mom ( thanks God, she is a very intelligent and kind woman), I started asking him to help me in doing different activities in the classroom, so that he was engaged and didn’t have time to for his distracting actions.

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